Is the Doctrine of Limited Punishment,

Terminated by Destruction True?

From: Illustrations of Divine Government, Chapter III.,
written by T. Southwood Smith, published in 1834.

Many Christians of the highest reputation for wisdom and piety, in all ages of the church, have maintained that the wicked will neither be punished with endless misery, nor permitted to be happy at any period of their future being, but that they will be raised from the dead, afflicted with severe and lasting suffering, and then undergo death a second time, from which they will never be restored to conscious existence. This hypothesis, as it supposes the infliction of a degree of pain which is exactly proportioned in every case to the degree of guilt, and which is followed by the total and endless extinction of intelligence and life, is called the doctrine of Limited Punishment, terminated by destruction.

Many passages of scripture are conceived not only strongly to favor, but expressly to assert this opinion. It is true, that it is countenanced by the sound of several expressions which occur in the New Testament; but a careful examination of these terms will perhaps show that their genuine meaning is widely different from that which a less thorough investigation might seem to indicate, and that there is no foundation in scripture for this hypothesis.

1st, The advocates of this opinion, like defenders of the doctrine of Endless Misery, endeavor to establish it on the term, aionios, which they contend signifies endless duration; and some go so far as to maintain that it is invariably used in this sense, and that it never denotes a limited period. (1) But, in opposition to those who plead for unending torment, they argue that punishment, not misery, is the substantive to which the adjective is applied -- that here may be everlasting punishment without everlasting misery, and that the former, not the latter, is invariably threatened in the sacred writings. They maintain, however, that the word which is translated everlasting does signify duration without end.

It is not necessary to repeat here the observations which have been made upon this term. The evidence which has been adduced of its frequent acceptation in a limited sense appears to be irresistible; and though it must be admitted, that it does sometimes denote endless duration, yet it has been clearly shown, that this is the case only when the nature of the subject to which it is applied necessarily implies unending existence, and that then it derives the meaning of endless from the subject.

The word being in itself equivocal, and capable both of a limited and of an unlimited signification, the only question which can be agitated is whether, when applied to future punishment, it does or does not denote duration without end. If the affirmative be maintained, it must be shown that there is something in this subject which necessarily imparts to it the sense of endless. Every argument founded upon it, unless this be premised, must be futile, and the advocate for the doctrine of destruction, in venturing to employ it, without first establishing this point, rests his hypothesis upon a term which makes as much against it as for it. But if, instead of being able to perform this task, his opponent can show that the reverse is true, and prove that the nature of punishment will not admit of this acceptation of the term, the controversy, as far as this word is concerned, must be considered as decided, in the opinion of every one who understands the principles of fair and legitimate reasoning.

2nd, The advocates of the doctrine of destruction contend that those passages which affirm that the wicked shall perish or be destroyed, and that they shall suffer death or destruction, decidedly prove that they will be punished with the utter extinction of being. This argument is founded on the presumption, that these expressions denote the endless loss of conscious existence. Few persons, perhaps, will rise from an investigation of this point without a conviction, that there is no foundation whatever for this assumption.

Apollumi, the word commonly rendered to perish or destroy, occurs about ninety times in the New Testament. It is used in several different senses, as, to lose, to lose life, or to lose anything -- to kill or destroy temporally, and this is its most frequent signification; but it often means, also, to render miserable, and is used to denote the infliction of pain or punishment. Schleusner renders it miserum reddo, paenis afficio, molestiam ac indignationem creo alicui. Romans, 2:12, 14:15; 1 Corinthians 15:18.

Apoleia, generally translated death or destruction, occurs about twenty times in the New Testament. It sometimes signifies death, or temporal destruction -- at others, injury, hurt, or calamity of any kind. Schleusner renders it unhappiness, any calamity or misery, and observes that it is especially used to denotee the divine punishment of offences, both in this and in a future life. His words are, infelicitas, omnis calamitas, miseria, et speciatim de paenis divinis peccatorum et in hac et in futura vita usurpatur. Matthew 7:13; Romans 9:12; Philippians 1:28.

3rd, The word olethros, commonly rendered destruction, signifies, also, pain, misery, punishment. Schleusner renders it paena, dolor, vexatio, cruciatus. 1 Corinthians 5:5, "Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh;" eis olethron tes sarkos, ut corpus crucietur et doloribus afficiatur. "Some bodibly pain was inflicted, in order to produce repentance and reformation." -- Simpson. -- The application of aionios to this word, in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, ("who shall be punished with everlasting destruction,") cannot prove that this expression denotes the endless extinction of consciousness and life, because it has been shown that olethros, when affixed to the punishment of the guilty, means pain and suffering, and that aionios signifies, not proper eternity, but lasting duration.

4th, On the word thanatos, death, and the phrase, deuteros thanatos, the second death, the advocates of the doctrine of destruction lay the greatest stress. They contend that the strict and invariable meaning of death is the total extinction of consciousness and life -- that the doctrine of the resurrection affords us the only satisfactory evidence we enjoy, that this extinction of being will not be endless, and that, since the wicked are threatened with a second death, from which there is no promise of deliverance, we must conclude that their punishment will consist in absolute and irrecoverable destruction.

A little attention to the subject will probably show that a fundamental principle upon which this argument is founded is fallacious. Thanatos does not denote the endless extinction of conscious existence. It occurs in the New Testament in several different senses, but never once in this, when used concerning intelligent beings. When it relates to the guilty, it denotes, like the other terms which have been considered, pain, punishment, suffering. Schleusner observes that it signifies, 1st, Properly natural death, or the separation of the soul from the body, not occasioned by external violence. 2nd, Violent death, or the punishment of death. 3rd, Per metonymiam, quodvis gravius malum et periculum mortis. 4th, Pestis, morbus pestiferus. 5th, Any kind of misery and unhappiness, but chiefly the punishment of wickedness, and of offences in this, as well as in a future life: omnis miseria et infelicitas, maxime quae est vitiositatis et peccatorum paena in hac pariter ae in future vita. 1 John 3:14; Romans 7:24; John 5:24; Romans 1:32.

It must be evident, then, that these words, when applied to future punishment, do not denote literal and absolute destruction, or the extinction of conscious existence, but the pain and suffering which will be inflicted upon the guilty, in consequence of their offences. By attaching this meaning to these terms, we render every passage in which they occur consistent with the general benevolent spirit of the gospel, and with the perfections of the Divine Being; but the argument attempted to be deduced from them, in favor of the doctrine of destruction, is founded merely on their sound, without regarding their real and Scriptural meaning.

But, even were the fundamental principle upon which it is attempted to establish this hypothesis -- namely, that death signifies the eternal extinction of consciousness and life -- admitted, (though it has been proved to be false,) instead of supporting the doctrine of limited punishment, terminated by destruction, it would be fatal to it; for, if death denote, together with the disorganization of the corporeal frame, the utter extinction of the intellectual faculty, the wicked cannot be punished in a future state with great and protracted suffering, as this hypothesis teaches, because the moment which terminates their mortal existence must, according to this meaning of the term, put an eternal period to their being.

Should it be urged, that the Scriptures affirm that the wicked shall awake from the sleep of death, and suffer the punishment due to their sins, it is obvious that this very argument proves, in the most decisive manner, that the meaning attempted to be affixed to the terms we are considering is not just, and establishes the important conclusion, that death is not the endless deprivation of life, nor destruction the everlasting extinction of the intellectual principle.

If it be contended, that we are assured that the wicked will undergo death again after their resurrection, and that we have no authority for supposing that they will be restored a second time to life, then the ground of the argument is changed; it is made to depend entirely upon those expressions which either affirm or imply that the wicked will be punished with the second death; the controversy is thus brought into a very narrow compass.

With respect to the phrase, deuteros thanatos, the second death, it is obvious, that, were death really the endless extinction of organized and intelligent existence, the expression, second death, would be absurd; for there could be no second death, were the first absolute and eternal.

If it be just to give a literal interpretation to this phrase, it seems to warrant the conclusion, that the wicked will die a second time; yet it is not affirmed that they will never rise again. Of the first resurrection we are certain, and we have no assurance that there will not be a second. There is no passage of Scripture hostile to the conclusion that there will. Should it be inferred, that a second resurrection will not take place, because there is no express promise to authorize the expectation, it may with equal justice be concluded that there will, because it is not positively affirmed that there will not. Of these opposite inferences, the latter is at least as well founded as the former; nay, it is much more so, because the first is incompatible with some passages of Scripture, but the second is contradicted by none, and is directly supported by several, particularly by those which speak of a first resurrection; for a first resurrection implies a second.

It is affirmed, 1 Corinthians 15:26, that the last enemy which shall be destroyed is death -- that death is swallowed up in victory -- that Jesus Christ has abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, 2 Timothy 1:10. But if the second death be absolutely endless, or reduce the subjects of it to a state of total and eternal unconsciousness, death is not abolished; its duration is commensurate with eternity; it is not vanquished -- it is the victor; it is not destroyed -- it triumphs.

To the doctrine of destruction, as well as to that of Endless Misery, the great truth, that there will be a resurrection both of the just and of the unjust, is decidedly hostile. Who can believe that the benevolent Father of the human race will call the greater part of his creatures from the sleep of death, and reorganize the curious and beautiful structure in which intelligence and consciousness reside, on purpose to inflict upon them everlasting misery, or very protracted suffering, which will terminate in destruction? What a work does this doctrine assign to the beneficent Creator? How inconsistent with every perfection of his nature! How different this his second from his first creation!

From every thing which we see and feel, it is evident that he intended to communicate happiness by bestowing the gift of life. Is it then possible to imagine that he will raise his creatures from the dead with no other view than to counteract his own design -- that he will exert his omnipotence on purpose to frustrate the counsels of his benevolence?

This hypothesis involves the absurdity which has been pointed out in the preceding pages. It supposes that the Deity restores millions of creatures to life for no other purpose than that of rendering them miserable, which is an act of cruelty of which we can form no adequate conception.

A resurrection to a state of pure unmixed suffering, (which is the common notion of a state of punishment,) which lasts for a very protracted period, and terminates in destruction, must render the existence of these unhappy persons, upon the whole a curse. If the Creator saw that any combination of circumstances would be attended with this consequence, he would either have prevented the occurrence of such a train of events, or have withheld the fiat which was about to call the sufferers into life. It has been proved, that every benevolent being would certainly do the one or the other. Either, therefore, there must be, even in the state of punishment, a greater prevalence of happiness than misery, which is contrary to the general idea of that state, or, if this be not the case, since it must render the existence of millions of creatures infinitely worse, upon the whole, than nonexistence, it is irreconcilable with the divine benignity.

If, however, any advocate of the doctrine of destruction should affirm that he does not adopt this opinion of the state of punishment, but believes that, at the winding up of the great drama of life, every intelligent being will have reason to bless his Creator for his existence, it is cheerfully admitted, that this argument does not apply against his hypothesis; but surely, while his heart glows with pleasure at the generous conclusion he adopts, he cannot but wish that his satisfaction could be perfected by the sight of pure, happy, and ever-improving intelligences, in the room of that awful and eternal blank which must press upon his view, and close the scene!

Such are the arguments in favor of the doctrine of Limited Punishment, terminated by the destruction, and such are the difficulties with which the hypothesis is encumbered. Every objection which is commonly urged, by intelligent persons, against the opinion, that it is the great design of the divine government to bring all mankind to a state of perfect purity and happiness, whether derived from the doctrine of Endless Misery, or from that of total and eternal destruction, has now been fully considered. With regard to the doctrine of Endless Misery, it has been shown that the terms everlasting, eternal, for ever, for ever and ever, etc., on which it is chiefly founded, do not denote duration without end, but only a lasting period -- that, even if it could be proved that these expressions, when applied to the subject of future punishment, must necessarily be taken in the sense of endless, it would by no means warrant the conclusion, that the wicked will be kept alive in misery through the ages of eternity; because it is everlasting punishment, not everlasting torment, with which the wicked are threatened -- that the application of the same term to the duration of the punishment of the wicked, and the happiness of the righteous, by no means proves that both are of equal continuance; because this word denotes different degrees of duration, when applied to different subjects -- because the nature of these two subjects is not only not the same, but directly opposite, and because many considerations prove that one of these states will be truly everlasting, but that the other cannot be so -- that the argument derived from the metaphor of fire, and particularly from the expression, unquenchable fire, is totally fallacious, because this language is used respecting fires which have been extinguished for ages, and respecting places which have since flourished, and which are still in existence -- that the sin against the Holy Ghost, which has been deemed so decisive a proof of this doctrine, directly confutes it, since it affords the most satisfactory evidence, that expressions of this kind do not and cannot denote duration without end, and since the punishment annexed to this crime may be inflicted to the very letter without its being endless -- that those minor arguments, which are deduced from some expressions and parables of Scripture, are insufficient to establish the doctrine, while some of them afford powerful arguments against it, and that the same is true of the reasonings by which many persons have endeavored to support it.

With regard to the doctrine Limited Punishment, terminated by destruction, it has been shown that it is founded solely on terms to which an unscriptural meaning is affixed -- that, while it professes to be established on the plain and positive declarations of Scripture, it is countenanced chiefly by a phrase which occurs only in the most highly figurative book of the New Testament, and amidst expressions entirely metaphorical -- that this very phrase affords it no other support than what can be derived from an inference which is so extremely equivocal, that the opposite conclusion may be deduced with equal plausibility, and that, while there is not a single passage in which the doctrine is expressed in clear and precise terms, there are many with which it is utterly incompatible.

All the objections which are commonly urged against the cheering and benevolent doctrine, that the whole human race will be ultimately restored to purity and happiness, having been thus fully considered, the mind may now be prepared to enter on and examination of the Scriptural evidence which appears to favor it.


1. See the Universal Restoration of Mankind Examined, &c. By Mr. John Marsom. Vol. I. pp. 134, 135.